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College Quarterly 

Spring 2010 - Volume 13 Number 2 

Environmental Engagement and the Problem of NIMBYism (The “Not In My Backyard” Syndrome) 
by William Humber 

Let me begin with a truism. Environmental health and improvement are not isolated matters of interest to 
only a few. They permeate all of our lives from the water we drink, to the air we breathe, and the soil in 
which we plant crops. Yet listening to much public, and political discussion, one would think they are only a 
consideration for the self-interest of advocates (everyone from A1 Gore and David Suzuki to those 
cryptically referred to as tree huggers or eco fascists), bureaucrats, and those with a financial stake. 

For instance while not denying climate change, but apparently any meaningful human role, Mark Steyn 
(Macleans magazine, 8 February 2010) described climate change apologists as hucksters, opportunists and 
global-government control-freaks (phew, who sounds more paranoid about a conspiracy?). 

Our obligation to address these challenges is directly connected to the quality, ambience, and satisfaction of 
the places in which we live. Yet we have deliberately disengaged from these challenges, often vociferously 
opposed measures for improvement, and failed to understand how we might live in better places. 

Andres Duany, a leading proponent of the “New Urbanism,” has observed that the quality and health of our 
living places are directly related to the challenge of human habitability, and this in turn is reflected not just 
in our personal residence but in its surrounding places which for our purposes we call neighbourhoods, a 
tenn fraught with sentimental misunderstanding but still appropriate for describing essentially the urban 
place with which we are most familiar. 

Neighbourhoods, particularly those in the developed world, are excellent starting points for environmental 
initiatives ranging from district energy solutions and green infrastructure projects, to stay-at-home working 
arrangements and civic engagement possibilities leading to further spin-off opportunities. They are 
obviously bigger than individual household efforts and thus have built-in synergistic possibility, but they are 
also smaller than big project stuff that often dwarfs and mystifies citizens. They are at a scale in short which 
allows for real and understandable change and improvement. Unfortunately they have too often become 
centres of retreat and disengagement. 

NIMBYism, the popular and short form for “Not In My Back Yard”, describes the resistance and outright 
opposition by residents, either within a distinct place such as a neighbourhood, or, more broadly, in a larger 
civic area right up to a town or city level, against some planned nearby facility, service, or changed land use. 
These items can include plans for a halfway house for mentally challenged adults, a Habitat for Humanity 
development, a district heating plant, a medium to high density development, a corner store, or virtually 
anything bringing change. 

NIMBYism is also about our more extensive relation to the world of change, and our understanding of the 
wider places in which we move. It is an existential issue touching on the ways we find meaning in the world. 
As such it is an ethical issue connected to choices which are often less about care for others then our ability 
to consume. It is tied into the integrated nature of our civic, economic and environmental obligations. 

1. Historic Roots of NIMBYism 

Change has never been without its adherents and opponents. NIMBYism is just another name for this human 

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dynamic. Nor are its challenges a recent urban phenomenon. People next to each other have always had 
cause to object to intrusions on their daily life. As often as not however the diversity of nearby livelihoods 
and land uses meant that residents of early urban settlements accepted the reality of multiple potential 
changes in their surroundings. The relative proximity of countryside meant that there was an area of 
temporary escape or alternate work and living arrangements. The undeveloped sense of what city life and its 
associated institutions meant also militated against a clearly articulated notion of what was appropriate. 

Perhaps the greatest reason for a muffled response to change however was the unequal distribution of power 
and the lack of formal or informal democratic channels through which one could express opposition or 

The rise of NIMBYism in the modern urban world is thus directly related either to the existence of formal 
democratic means for their expression, or the confidence that even when such processes are non-existent or 
negligible, resisting voices will at least be tolerated and occasionally even listened to, as in modem China. 

In accounting for modem NIMBYism we often forget that the modern city is the culmination of two 
seemingly contradictory developments. The first was the ascendance of the compact urban form, often in 
historically prescribed locations, on the back of the industrial revolution. It was characterized generally by 
mixed uses in close proximity to each other, a setting in which walking was the primary means of getting 
about (most needs being within 400 to 800 meters of one’s residence), and conditions imposed by 
dependence on nearby water for steam power, necessitating factories which were essentially in one’s 
backyard. The second was the dispersing effect of later technology which made possible the suburban 
character defining so much of the contemporary city. 

a) Public Expenditure 

The 19th century city for all the idealized glory of remnant architecture and easily traversed and narrow 
streets was for most people a miserable setting, lacking clean water and regularized sanitation services. It 
was akin in many ways to cities in the developing world in our own time. Nor was there necessarily general 
agreement that something should be done about these conditions. Self interest and what Tristram Hunt calls 
a small shopkeeper mentality argued against public expenditure. Only as the level of deprivation became 
pronounced did a class of publicly inspired, privately successful entrepreneurs emerge willing to take on the 
challenge of civic improvement. There was however no guarantee that such altruism would outlive them. 

Taxation has always been a focus of public agitation from its earliest introduction. The degree of personal 
antagonism largely reflects alienation from the broader public realm, perceived fairness, and transparency in 
its collection and allocation. The more separated one becomes from the sense of connection to others the 
less likely citizens are to support public initiatives. This was the case in the 19th century for affluent people 
who often could escape the city when disease threatened or whose residences were less likely to be 
anywhere near the factories they owned. 

NIMBYism has its modern origins in the contested discussion about appropriate taxation, though its explicit 
identity has evolved from this consideration to one regarding physical surroundings. 

(b) The Decline of Urbanism 

Suburbanization was the second phase of modem city development. While a feature of even the strong 
central city of the 19th century, its eventual ascendancy can be laid at the door of urbanism’s apparent 
decline in the early 20th century. Authors on geographically distinct phenomenon such as Douglas Rae’s 
description of cities in the United States (Rae, 2003) and Tristram Hunt on cities in the United Kingdom 
(Hunt, 2004), have described the end of formally dominant urban centres as the result of multiple factors 
including the dispersing influence of alternating current electricity, car dominance, and growth at the edge 
of the city in response to an unhealthy urban setting. 

Lively if downtrodden traditional urban downtowns and their associated and engaged neighbourhoods were 
replaced as the dominant form of urban development by single use, and most often single income and 
similar family type neighbourhoods, at some remove from services, shopping and workplaces. From being 

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active participants in their city whether they wanted to be or not (either as advocates for improvement or 
merely an extra set of eyes on the street), and as celebrated in Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great 
American Cities (Jacobs, 1993) citizens in suburban enclaves assumed a consumer outlook. Their lives 
revolved around private concerns and spaces, an identity reinforced in the early 21st century by a range of 
individual digital communication tools. 

The old city of the 19th century remains, but it stands in some cases alongside a new suburban form 
bleeding into the historic core in the form of early 20th century garden villages, or more recently as the 
commonly understood single use, low density, cul-de-sac streetscape, first at the old city’s edge, but now a 
powerful form stretching outwards 100 kilometres or more, overwhelming quasi independent and 
geographically compact small towns once surrounded by agriculture. 

More insidiously the shape and ideology of the suburb has often been laid right on top of the old city, in the 
form of downtown shopping malls that turn their back on the street, or gated, and child-prohibited 
occupancy condominiums. 

(c) Integration and Segregation 

Historically, arguments regarding the built environment have been more likely to occur in anonymous city 
environments as opposed to smaller town places. In the latter, rich and poor were more likely to live within 
blocks of each other and their children likely attended the same school, thus they had a greater sense of 
public connection and obligation, as well as tools for achieving consensus. In big cities however this was 
less likely to be the case. 

In American cities these arguments have been has been exacerbated by centuries of institutionalized racism. 
Beginning after the First World War white flight from inner cities, as Blacks moved in, led to restrictive 
covenants in the new neighbourhoods to which whites moved. These explicitly banned sales to Blacks, 

Jews, and other minorities. In some ways this was the final straw necessary for the perfect storm of explicit 
and modern NIMBYism. 

(d) Urban Planning 

Modern urban NIMBYism cannot be separated from the types of urban development which characterized 
post-Second World War North America. Freeways through inner city cores, paving over of green spaces, 
widening of roads making them more dangerous for pedestrians particularly children and the elderly, were 
some of the antagonizing aspects of this new order. But others included the paving of streams and rivers to 
rush stonn water through town and either flood those downstream or dump street refuse (from leaking car 
oil to dog detritus) into once pristine lakes. Few urban areas are as ugly and as likely to attract unwanted 
items from shopping carts to murder victims as the famous paved ditch in Los Angeles (and also in movie 
shots as a symbol of urban decay!). 

As well the massing of poor people in Soviet style high-rises not only objectified the indignity of these 
people’s plight but also was often at the expense of once lively but “down on their heels” mixed urban 
neighbourhoods of homes, shops, workplaces etc. These were torn down to accommodate single use 
apartment neighbourhoods with no nearby resources or urban variety, and as often as not quickly evolved 
into dangerous no-go places for everyone except those forced by circumstance to live there. 

One had once expected public officials, transportation engineers, urban planners, social workers and others 
to protect the public from the worse predatory aspects of the free market and the self-interest of developers 
eager to destroy working neighbourhoods and replace them with ugly high rises. Instead urban residents had 
every reason to believe the public sector might be a worse enemy than private entrepreneurs who at least had 
to worry about their image, future sales and new regulations. 

(e) Evolution of Real Estate Value 

The exploding value of real estate as the most significant investment most people will make in their lives 
has led to the further evolution of NIMBYism. Those who invested early in the real estate market saw the 

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value of their property exceed even their wildest dreams. NIMBYism was a means of shielding this inflated 
value from anything perceived as a threat to its exponential increase, but as well it led to greater 
conservatism within neighbourhoods. Even heritage designation, which while it protects the quality of the 
neighbourhood might also dampen the widest possible potential market for individual homes, is cause for 
local objection. 

So while desirous of preventing unacceptable intrusions in one’s surroundings, the irony of NIMBYism is 
that it isn’t really about preserving the neighbourhood, as it is about individual self-interest. Too often the 
objector’s ultimate objective is to make the most profit possible and then leave the very neighbourhood 
supposedly being protected for some apparently more pristine, isolated, and guarded place. 

2. Contemporary Forces in Continuing NIMBYism 

Like all phenomenon however it is important to understand the range of forces driving contemporary 
NIMBYism, as more than an a-historical, inevitable process. Only then can public policies and private 
initiative deal with it as a challenge. 

(a) Alienation from the Built Environment 

As noted above, a major contemporary issue is our alienation from the surrounding built environment and its 
sheer ugliness, a point marvelously documented by James Howard Kunstler in Geography of Nowhere 

If we were residents of a slum in a developing country we would regard even the blandest of new 
subdivisions as marvellous destinations. As we advance up the chain of self-actualization beyond survival 
needs however we begin to pay attention to factors such as the quality and beauty of life. Much of modern 
North American urban development is characterized by tremendous utilitarian banality in the built 
environment - dour high rises with no connection to their surrounding neighbourhood; lack of human scale 
(in which building size, location, use and roadway width, don’t connect in an ordered way and leave us 
feeling uncomfortable and unsafe walking within them); multi-lane roadways and wide turning radii at the 
end of the street creating pedestrian discomfort and serving only the interest of traffic; dreary single use 
residential subdivisions dominated by multiple snout nosed garages fronting on to the street; strip retail 
development with garish signs and lowest cost building materials and mediocre design. 

No wonder people with the best of intentions say, I don’t want this where I live. 

(b) Personal Disengagement from Public Obligation 

Alongside this however there is significant personal disengagement from public obligations (be these shared 
responsibility for halfway houses, energy supporting facilities, nearby schools and shops to which kids and 
older people without cars can walk). It is a loss of social capital poignantly documented by Robert Putnam 
in Bowling Alone (2000). Much of the opposition to confronting the challenge of climate change for 
instance is a barely disguised play on the economist John Maynard Keynes’s observation that in the long run 
we’re all dead. We simply don’t care about future generations, and by extension this includes our own 
children and grandchildren, much less those seven generations from now (an aboriginal imperative). 

Against this point of view of course are those who plant trees knowing their full spendour will not appear 
until long after their life is over, but this requires a higher level of intentional ethics which most of us are 
prepared to suppress. Beyond this lack of attention to future generations is denying awareness of the over 
billion people in emerging cities of the developing world who live without sanitation, property rights, clean 
water, education for their children, job and residential security. It is a world described in harrowing terms by 
Mike Davis in Planet of Slums (2006), and with a somewhat more optimistic tone by Doug Saunders in 
Arrival City (Saunders, 2010). 

In the England of Charles Dickens, deprivation surrounded well-off citizens. Peter Ackroyd in London: The 
Biography (Ackroyd, 2000) has described the city’s eccentric character in which the lack of settled 
education and absence of a defined social “system,” a concept not receiving recognition until the mid 19th 

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century, meant the emerging Victorian agencies of uniformity and propriety only slowly overtook a world 
depicted in Hogarth’s prints, the political cartoons of Rowlandson and Gillray, and Pierce Egan’s colourful 
accounts of Regency-era pugilism. 

Emerging critical perspectives ranging from those penned by Karl Marx at the library of the British 
Museum, to the “Garden City” urban theories of Ebenezer Howard, transformed public conversation if they 
did not always change attitudes. Public authorities could delay acting but the obligation to do so faced them 
on a daily basis. Reform, while quixotic, gradually overcame the worst abuses of public neglect. 

Today however the overwhelming challenge of poverty in other parts of the world leads not to engagement 
with the issue but either avoidance for their being out of sight and also out of mind, or the rationalization 
that an unencumbered free market will lift all boats. On a more local level then our rejection of small 
measures, which might benefit those with greater problems than our own, parallels the larger problem of 
modem living in a developed world alongside that of the developing world. 

(c) Monetary Issues 

The triumph of one issue, private property value, over all others has been referenced above. In simple tenns 
it means any measure, from protecting the heritage character of the neighbourhood to positive performance 
objectives such as main street improvement, are objected to if they mean private property owners can’t do as 
they please with their property, even tear it down, regardless of whether it destabilizes the neighbourhood, 
or adds construction waste to landfills (which of course no one wants in their neighbourhood). The largest 
possible dollar return on property sale and the opportunity to escape to some perceived better place trumps 
all other issues. 

Individual property owners are encouraged in this view by real estate interests and the property industry. 
While claiming to sell homes based on the quality of the living place, their ultimate interest is chum. This 
distorts local decision-making, turning it into a servant to profits over quality of life and place. 

Absentee ownership and tenancy in a neighbourhood are more problematic issues. They may have the 
potential to destabilize an area, if not engaged in substantive dialogue and participation. Such a 
rapprochement however is often not in the perceived best interest of the landlord for whom alienation from 
public involvement prevents lively debate as to property conditions or neighbourhood improvements, 
particularly if the latter lead to increased assessment and taxation. 

The latter is a powerful force in NIMBYism detracting from a collective perspective in which we celebrate a 
shared public realm and instead ask only what it costs. If it is too much we reflect on how this imposes 
limitations on our personal spending, from being able to afford long commutes to purchasing more 
privatized electronic resources. 

(d) Diminished Local Media 

A powerful ally alongside this personal interest in property values is the increasingly narrow role assumed 
by local media, once a strong advocate for vibrant, diverse places. 

One need only consult small town, regional, and even small city newspapers which flourished in the middle 
of the 20th century and in some cases until its end. They are remarkable records of communities with 
everything from police blotter details of local misdeeds to photos of those receiving bowling trophies, to the 
dinner guests of anyone who chose to share that information. As these newspapers were purchased by larger 
media conglomerates, coverage of local matters declined and was replaced in large measure by massive 
quantities of flyers for regional big box stores, and an editorial policy slanted less towards community 
engagement in its own ongoing story and more towards the interests of the real estate industry, not 
surprisingly one of the largest advertisers. 

With a reduced sense of their own identity and no alternate source of community portrait the ties of local 
endearment disappeared to be replaced by isolation in which it is easier to just say no, rather than engage in 
meaningful dialogue. 

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(e) Professional Practitioner Practices and Standards 

Sometimes the very attributes one would have thought would have increased the resilience of public 
decision-making, and with it public confidence in its practitioners, contribute to NIMBYism. The 
intellectual and governing biases and standards of professionals, reflecting generations of standard practice, 
often lead to decisions alienating neighbourhoods. 

The dominance of engineering imperatives in public design is one example. Traditional traffic engineering 
has mandated wide roads and excessive impermeable surfaced parking. It is based on single use and low- 
density suburban models and operates regardless of the area in which it is applied. Even its application in 
suburban locations however merely furthers the solely utilitarian character of those areas and prevents their 
possible evolution into more lively places with mixed uses and richer experiences. 

Alongside this is the contested nature of what constitutes public safety, often resulting in dreary, and in 
some cases even less safe, places. Fire and emergency service providers demand wide unencumbered 
streets, which might allow them to get to fires quicker, but which also allow for increased and faster traffic 
with resulting pedestrian fatalities. A law enforcement bias emerges favouring automotive flow over a 
walker’s entry into the public space of the roadway. 

The cumulative result for places lacking in human vitality, is increased resident disengagement from public 
roles and obligations. 

(f) Insurance and Banking Interests 

The insurance and banking industries historically manipulated the enhanced value of new suburban 
development over older neighbourhoods, despite the contribution of the latter to urban quality and public 
health. They did so in some cases by redlining older areas (a practice of refusing loans to the residents of 
largely inner city neighbourhoods in the 1930s which not only furthered white flight but also degraded those 
places through a lack of available investment for necessary retrofits). 

Insurance companies continue to apply higher premiums for older houses, on the questionable assumption 
that their older components such as electricity, plumbing, etc. make them more vulnerable to destruction. 
More often this results from out of date risk management analysis. This encourages teardowns with resulting 
construction waste, neighbourhood destabilization, public defensiveness and the loss of local character and 
sense of belonging. 

(g) Political Self-Interest 

Political self-interest also encourages local NIMBYism. Some areas are disadvantaged simply because they 
have no political clout. Democratic obstructionism occurs because representatives care only for the interests 
of their ward or region, or lack respect for the very government they are empowered to represent. No 
wonder there is public distrust of the political process as one that never serves necessary ends. 

Imposed controls by a central authority without meaningful opposition, more likely in single party states but 
becoming more common in democracies as parties come to resemble each other, turns citizens into 
disengaged spectators, less inclined to take on any public responsibility. Decisions based not on public 
interest, but only on getting re-elected, further sour public engagement. 

Because we now live in megapolitan regions stretching 100 kilometres or more in every possible direction 
from the historic big city downtown, we sense that there are many other places to put those facilities and 
land uses that people don’t want in their neighbourhood. Decisions reflect the power and influence of some 
and the lack of such by others. The latter unhappily are the recipients of unwanted facilities or people. The 
harsh political reality of this process suggests to many that it pays to engage in NIMBYism, there being no 
tax breaks or political favours for those places in which unwanted elements are located. 

(h) Governance Failure 

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Perhaps even more damaging is the failure of governance to catch up with the reality of most people’s lives. 
In Canada for instance the federal government is often more concerned with regional cries of inequity by its 
excessive attention to declining rural and non-urban areas, whose votes often carry more weight than those 
of city dwellers. Provincial jurisdictions are generally too big for the realities of modem urban territories. 

On the other hand existing urban areas, as politically defined, are too small. 

Jurisdictionally Toronto ends at Steeles Avenue in the north and is bounded by the Rouge and Humber 
rivers in the east and west. The real Toronto that most experience and depend on however corresponds to 
what has been described as the Greater Golden Horseshoe stretching east to Port Hope-Cobourg, northeast 
to Peterborough, north to Orillia, northwest to Orangeville, west to Kitchener, and south around to Niagara 
Falls. Its summer holiday retreats and winter skiing trips spread that influence even further, while an urban 
lifestyle now characterizes the lives of most people regardless of where they live. 

This dispersed region, as the effective living area for people, includes everything from work, shopping and 
worship destinations to friendships and the many places in which kids play weekend hockey. No level of 
government effectively represents the reality of most people’s lives and so left on their own they resort to 
building barricades rather than acknowledging obligations. 

(i) Paradigms of Urban Development 

It goes without saying as well that we are still victimized with out of date (post Second World War) 
paradigms of urban development, which degrade built and natural environments. The history of 
neighbourhoods demolished by public authorities for expressways and public housing as noted above 
angered, horrified, and alienated potential supporters of public initiatives. 

Though these practices are less likely today nevertheless paradigms of urban planning focused only on 
automotive movement, big boxes on the edge of town destroying main street retail areas, or monster homes 
replacing streetscape integrated bungalows, continue to be built. These satisfy some even as they 
disadvantage others. 

More nuanced participative planning processes, characterized by public education rather than public 
relations strategies, and incorporating a wider variety of interests, voices, and points of view, are required. 
They have the potential both to intelligently engage the public as to the implications of their often cliched 
responses to issues, as well as providing eventually for their enhanced active participation in public issues. 

(j) Logistics Management 

Current economic processes also contribute to NIMBYism. Logistics management interest in just-in-time 
delivery, results in an emphasis on roads and entire blocks of dead streets with facilities such as warehouses. 
Add to this the off shoring of production for cheaper goods, contributing to climate change, by enabling 
countries like China to ignore pollution controls, and we face the only conclusion that our pursuit of the 
lowest cost product degrades built and natural environments. 

For now we are uncomfortably aware of the contradiction in our desire for cheap products and their impact 
on the places we live and perhaps the livelihoods of present and future generations. Our response has been 
to disengage from these issues as if our neighbourhoods could somehow avoid their implications. For now 
NIMBYism is a symbol of the paradoxes of our lives. 

(k) Perverse Public Subsidies 

We say we want to mitigate climate change but then provide massive tax breaks for companies investing in 
measures increasing greenhouse gas production. Locally we talk about the value of community institutions 
to which people can walk, then provide financing for school boards that encourage big box schools which 
are reachable only by school buses or parents driving kids to school. This policy destabilizes and eventually 
leads to the closing of local neighbourhood schools, with resulting increase in public health maladies and 
greenhouse gas production. 

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More ominously bigger places breed greater anonymity with implications for school violence and 
vandalism, linkages we are only now making. 

(l) Public Service Provision 

Fire and emergency service imperatives were listed above as factors, but other quasi-public agencies like 
electrical utilities also contribute to diminishing public confidence in the motivation of public agencies. 

They often engage in destructive tree trimming near above ground transmission lines rather than investing in 
the burying of such lines below ground. Often this is due to perverse public regulations, which both ignore 
the impact of overhead wires on neighbourhoods and prevent investment in underground measures because 
these are rationalized as being against a fiduciary obligation to public and private investors in utility 

NIMBYism is also the product of unintended consequences. Police are so encumbered with responsibility 
for traffic management and watching over dead city areas such as parking lots, industrial dead ends, and 
places with no eyes on the street that they don’t have time for neighbourhoods. Vandalism and crime often 
go unchecked with the result that residents just want to seal themselves off from the world with cul de sac 
streets and quasi or fully gated communities. 

(m) Privatization and Electronic Communications 

The triumph of privatization in personal resources and public decision-making is reflected in the explosion 
of electronic communication tools from cell-phones to iPods, iPads and BlackBerries. Each of us has 
become our own niche with a corresponding sense of individual entitlement and reduced public obligation. 
Turning on its head Andy Warhol’s famous dictum that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen 
minutes, the English graffiti artist Banksy described a more likely scenario in which everyone will be 
anonymous for only 15 minutes in the future. 

At what passes for a communal level we now have gated communities (even gated countries as the 
American obsession with security seems to be intent on realizing), private legal systems, and disconnected 
roadways forcing all traffic onto gridlocked main corridors with no dispersing opportunities through 
alternative minor roads. 

Our lifestyles contribute to the above process of disengagement in that our places of work, play, worship, 
entertainment and even the home team we cheer for may bear no relation to the neighbourhood in which we 
live. Our lives are a collection of shared interests with those to whom a geographic connection is irrelevant. 

(n) Metaphysics of Place 

Neighbourhood change often removes the peculiarities and what might be thought of as a metaphysics of 
place and spaces (the sights, sounds, and smells which in an indefinable, seemingly mystical way, connect 
us to a location). Too often it eliminates any local anomalies such as crooked roads, potholed side streets 
which slow down speeding cars or deter them from entering the street in the first instance, as well as 
overhanging trees, and funky street signs. 

Since change defines most things in modern living one’s neighbourhood becomes a refuge. One wants it 
never to change from the way it was first encountered but think how difficult this is. There are just so many 
more people today; twice as many in Canada and the United States as there were 50 years ago. There are 
fewer quiet places, fewer places dark at night without intruding light being visible on the horizon, fewer 
places of genuine escape without encountering others. 

3. Solutions for Overcoming NIMBYism 

Is there a way out of this? 

Ironically we confront NIMBYism’s pursuit of non-changing character in a world of constant change and 

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chum, as increasingly stoked by the evolving individualism of modern communications. The result is a 
neighbourhood life that is even more separated and disengaged. The challenge in confronting this 
contradiction is essential, particularly since not only do most issues far surpass the narrow boundaries of 
one’s perceived neighbourhood, be these climate change or economic globalization, but they inevitably 
rebound back upon local places. 

Some preliminary suggestions include: 

• Crisper definition, rather than sentimental descriptions, of what constitutes a neighbourhood, 
recognizing its essential horizontal and walkable history alongside its increasingly vertical reality, as 
well as the peculiar features of multiple and single use places, low density versus high density 
configurations, developed versus developing world typologies, 

• Encouraging YIMBYs - “Yes In My Back Yard” proponents by publicizing, applauding, and even 
rewarding such activists, 

• Recognizing that at least in some cases NIMBYism is a legitimate stance. Some places are 
overwhelmed by intrusions of a physical, social, or environmentally threatening character because 
they lack political power or the will to oppose proposals from authorities who prey on their weakness 
or naivety, 

• Just as we have towns and cities twinning with each other why not neighbourhoods in developed and 
developing countries, as one means of raising our awareness of broader obligations and 

• Rewarding those, even if they fought against such items, who receive unwanted facilities and people 
in their neighbourhood or town/city, through lower taxes, political favours, street improvements, and 
other public benefits, 

• Using Wi-Fi connectivity to define neighbourhoods by placing it in community locations such as mail 
box pick up areas, public benches and in what Ray Oldenberg [9] calls “third places” such as 
restaurants and coffee shops, 

• Allowing neighbourhoods to hire the architect/planner/engineer responsible for assessing their 
neighbourhood and designing its proposed facility, 

• Water! - surprisingly many who have faced the challenge of NIMBYism found that providing a 
project with some element of water, be it day lighting a formerly buried creek, or adding a pond or 
fountain enhanced its appeal and support, 

• Better public and private design of individual buildings, streetscape and institutions so that people 
clamour for such places in their neighbourhood, 

• Re-ordering the nature of local governance so that it both recognizes the regional character of modern 
urban living (with its 100 plus kilometre radius), and at the same time provides forums and 
opportunities for the re-engagement of neighbourhood entities at street, unit and district levels in the 
political and governance process, 

• At least some of the funds for local improvements or those paid to the Municipality as part of 
development charges should be placed at the disposal of neighbourhood choice, be this sidewalk 
improvement, expanded daycare, renewal of public space such as a local park, or some form of public 

• Identify or fund an advocacy agency for the neighbourhood with skills in marketing and branding to 
assist the neighbourhood in defining itself, and discovering its unseen or unexpected attributes 
through such means as psycho geographical walks and portraits, as a resource for soliciting future 
ideas and improvements, 

• Providing some form of mapping, portraiture, etc, which is transparent, readily available, and perhaps 
mounted at a known public location such as community mailboxes, which describes the zoning, 
regional context of their neighbourhood, and plans for local change envisioned for a reasonable time 
into the future, be that the future of elementary schools, road closings, new tree planting etc., 

• Celebrating new forms of neighbourhoods be these in expensive condominium high-rises, or squatter 
settlements for the distinct manner in which they define their relationships with those who live nearby, 

• Taking the suburb seriously. Rather than simply throwing one’s hands up at the sheer banality and 
environmental impact of such places, there is a public policy need to address their real challenges, 
opportunities, and place in the urban conversation about engaged living places. While for many they 
will always be places of escape, such an attitude can be countered by effective options for 

Environmental Engagement and the Problem of NIMBYism - William Humber 

Page 10 of 10 

improvement, appropriate tax regimes, and encouragement of positive public voices. 

Finally the increasing potential for distributed as opposed to centralized delivery and provision of services 
from energy to water supply and treatment promise new means of engaging communities not only in the 
design of such systems, but the ability to hire people at a local level to maintain them, alongside a more 
robust political framework within which residents can debate and manage the future evolution of new ways 
of meeting public needs. 

Environmental improvement through these emerging technologies and related public engagement processes, 
as well as the false promise of many current “greening” strategies, however requires further study beyond 
the scope of this paper. 


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Davis, M. (2006) Planet of Slums, London:Verso 

Hunt, T. (2004) Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, London: Phoenix 

Jacobs, J. (1993) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Modern Library (originally 
published 1961) 

Kunstler, J. (1993) The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, 
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Oldenburg, R. (1989) The Great Good Place: & How They Get You Through The Day, New York: Marlowe 
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Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon 
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Saunders, D. (2010) Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World, Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf 

Bill Humber is the Director, Office of Eco-Seneca initiatives (OESi) at Seneca College. He can be reached 

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